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New Mexico voters enshrine early childhood education in state constitution

Early childhood educators Ivydel Natachu and her son Kacy Panteah. (Courtesy)
Early childhood educators Ivydel Natachu and her son Kacy Panteah. (Courtesy)

New Mexico ranks 50th in the nation for child well-being.

But that reality could shift in the years to come, as the state will soon start pumping more than $150 million every year into early childhood education.

The money is on its way after voters in New Mexico approved a ballot measure this month called Constitutional Amendment One, which directs funding across the state to the youngest learners and the people who care for them.

The cash comes from a unique trust, funded by gas and oil revenue, that was first put into place as part of New Mexico’s statehood more than 100 years ago.

New Mexico has taken steps to help families during the pandemic, such as offering free daycare. But that’s been temporary. And in the years to come, this new funding stream will be guaranteed.

Andrea Serrano, executive director of OLÉ, a nonprofit for working families, has been fighting for this kind of support for years.

“This means so much change for New Mexico,” she says. “This means a path for our children to have quality early education, home visiting day care. This means increased wages for early educators.”

Increased wages have been a big sticking point to recruiting and keeping people in early education jobs.

Ivydel Natachu, who teaches 3-year-olds at Childco Day School, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is hopeful the new funding will benefit generations.

Before the pandemic, she was making $10 per hour. With pandemic relief support, she’s now making $17 per hour, or about $34,000 a year.

But she is fighting for better pay and benefits.

“Teaching is a stressful job, especially with this age where they are at their most critical time of development … everything’s brand new to them. So it gets frustrating,” she says. “But we also do lots of paperwork to help the child grow, like referrals and lesson plans. I mean, just as a public teacher [has] duties, we also have those. So I feel with all that — and we have all different kinds of educational levels — we do deserve higher wages.”

Natachu says the low wages have impacted her and her colleagues’ ability to work in the field of early childhood education.

She, like many early educators around the country, has lived on the edge of poverty and at times relied on public assistance programs to get by. Even a small raise has been enough to disqualify her for assistance.

Natachu says she relied on food stamps and worked two jobs until she and her son, Kacy Panteah, moved in together.

Panteah followed in his mother’s footsteps and now teaches 4 and 5-year-olds at the same school. He’s married and has two young children. After watching his mother struggle financially, Panteah says he knew what he was getting himself into by taking the job.

“I think your heart really has to be in it because if it’s not, you don’t want to stick around for low wages,” Panteah says.

Panteah says he also has to fight the stigma of being “just a babysitter.”

But ultimately, he says the joys he and his mother have experienced teaching young kids have outweighed the hardships.

“Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of male positive role models. So, I always looked at her like, ‘oh, wow.’ So once there was an opening [at] her work, I was quick to jump at it. And it’s been 15 years that I’ve never left,” Panteah says.

Panteah has thought about leaving the field for better wages, but he’s holding on. This new funding in New Mexico gives him hope to improve the well-being for the children he teaches there.

“All the benefits they will get, like having outside organizations that can help early with children that have disabilities, with delays in their learning, they [could] get help with all that,” he says. “So I know that children will benefit greatly from what’s going on now.”

Natachu is hopeful more money will go to people like her who are early educators.

“We want accountability for this money and we definitely want it to go to the teachers and to to develop programs that will assist children to [become] successful in their learning and their growing up,” she says.

Panteah agrees.

“We are on the front lines daily with them,” he says. “Sometimes, I know it’s hard to believe, but most times we’re there [with kids] more than the parents.  They’re there with them [on] weekends, after school … where we’re with them all day.”

Going forward, there are still details to be worked out about constitutional amendment one. And the funding likely won’t be distributed until at least next year.

But Serrano, the head of OLÉ, is hopeful about the changes ahead after a historic election.

“We are thrilled. This is a new day for New Mexico,” she says. “We’re the first state in the nation to enshrine early education in our state constitution.”


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Locke adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.